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Forty-six-year-old Laura MacDonald, charged with setting two major fires in Norwich in 2012 while on probation for a previous arson case, has been found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and will be committed to the state's hospital for the criminally insane.
New London Superior Court Judge Hillary B. Strackbein listened to testimony from Norwich fire and police officials and mental health clinicians on Jan. 24 before rendering the verdict. Attorney Bruce A. Sturman had pursued the insanity defense based on MacDonald's long history of mental illness and hospitalizations. MacDonald is being evaluated at the Whiting Forensic Institution and will return to court in March, when the judge will determine the length of her commitment at the state hospital for the criminally insane.
A Niantic native who was living in Norwich at the time of her arrest, MacDonald had served 10 months in prison for reckless burning in connection with a fire that destroyed the Capehart Mill in April 2010. She was on probation when she allegedly joined with a group of younger people in March 2012 to set fire to unoccupied homes on Oak and Lake streets. She was living in a Reliance House residence on the Uncas on Thames Campus at 401 W. Thames St. in Norwich. MacDonald had previously been charged with setting fire to an unoccupied car in 1995, according to court documents.
During a recent evaluation, she admitted to West Hartford psychologist Rafael Gallegos that she is fascinated with fires and being involved in fire-setting activity, according to court documents. Gallegos reported that MacDonald "fully understood the wrongfulness of fire-setting but has been unable to consistently refrain from said behavior."
Gallegos concluded that because MacDonald's behavior is related to a brain/development disorder, there is little to no likelihood her behavior will change. She has been diagnosed with a long list of mental illnesses, including schizoaffective disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, bulimia and borderline personality disorder. Gallegos opined that MacDonald is in need of 24-hour supervision in a clinical treatment center "where she can be closely monitored to prevent her from engaging in dangerous and destructive behavior."